Friday, December 7, 2007

Some Recent Books on Food

Food and nutrition has been getting a lot of attention the last few years, and there have been many wonderful books that cover these topics from different angles. Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma has been getting a lot of attention since it came out last year. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read it yet, but if it’s anything like his previous book The Botany of Desire, then it is well worth checking out.

I’ve been slowly reading and re-reading two books similar to Pollan’s book in that they deal with different aspects of food – Hungry Planet by Peter Menzel & Faith D’aluisio and What To Eat by Marion Nestle.

Hungry Planet was a project conducted by a writer wife and photographer husband team who traveled around the world and documented what people ate. They provide a photo of each family they followed along with a week’s worth of their food and how much was spent. Essays and photo essays on food, culture, politics, and other food-related matters are interspersed between the family profiles. Hungry Planet is a wonderful synthesis of pictures and words about one of the necessities of life.

Marion Nestle’s What To Eat tackles the problem of how to navigate through the supermarket, specialty food stores, and the confusion coming from the latest dietary advice and news, government policies, scientific studies, and food politics. Nestle talked to government officials, food industry leaders, food advertisers, journalists, food scientists – all in an attempt to make sense of what you and I encounter in the supermarket on a regular basis. At the end of each section of the book (or supermarket as she has organized it), Nestle offers her take on a particular issue and advice as to what you and I should do at the supermarket. Her goals are to help us make informed choices about food and nutrition and to have us give consideration to the food we eat. She succeeds in all of this admirably.

There is one section devoted to the problems surrounding farmed versus wild fish with salmon being the prime example. Many of the fish left in today’s oceans have been exposed to organic chemicals such as PCBs because of waste runoff originating from manufacturing companies. Organic chemicals tend to accumulate and stay within the fat stores of fish. This accumulation is compounded by the fact that carnivorous and omnivorous fish take in whatever organic chemicals were stored in their food, that is, other fish. So the higher a fish is on the food chain, the higher the levels of organic chemicals will be found in that fish.

Salmon are carnivores for the majority of their lives. When they are young, they start eating krill before moving on to small fish that would contain relatively low amounts of organic chemicals. Farmed salmon are fed fish meal and fish oil made from adult fish that are not normally sold at market as part of their diet. They eat and accumulate organic chemicals at the very start of their lives from adult fish that have relatively high amounts of organic chemicals. Also, the farmed salmon’s lifestyle and diet changes the composition of their body fat from a low amounts of total fat with a high percentage of omega-3 fatty acids to one that has high amounts of total body fat comprised of a higher percentage of saturated fat and a lower percentage of omega-3 fatty acids. In addition to being farm-raised, the matter of where the salmon came from plays a part its health. A team of researchers sampled numerous salmon, farm and wild, from different parts of the world for their organic chemical accumulation. They found that wild salmon from the Americas tended to have much lower amounts of organic chemicals than their farmed counterparts in Europe. So whenever we want to eat salmon or any other fish, we should consider the following: where it came from, farm or wild, its place in the food chain, how much fat it contains, and whether it has been listed on a state advisory.

Much of what Nestle discusses has been covered in my nutrition classes and much has not. Hungry Planet deals with food culture and the effects of markets on food – topics that are lacking in my classes thus far. While Nestle spells out clearly what the average shopper should be aware of and do, Menzel and D’aluisio aren’t as explicit in their message, but they do lead you to certain conclusions about the global economy, food, politics, and culture. I recommend these books to anyone who is even remotely curious about food and nutrition, that is, everyone needs to read these books.

Next on the “To Read” List:
  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
  • Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket by Brian Halwell
  • The United States of Arugula by David Kamp
Today’s Supplements:
  • Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser for its portrayal of the US’s fast food history, culture, and business. There have been many positive changes in the industry thanks in part to this book.
  • Super Size Me by Morgan Spurlock if you want to see the effects of a lifelong relationship with fast food compressed into a month.
  • FreeRice because you want to test your vocabulary while simultaneously donating food to those in need.

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